Leftovers: Back to Birmingham

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In the fall of last year, I took “The Fight for Rights’” tour, an educational civil rights tour hosted by Red Clay Tours in Birmingham, Alabama. The experience further deepened my belief that while progress has been made, there’s so much more to do in our public and private daily lives to identify and weed out racism in this country. 

Like most of us, I recognize and honor the work of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on his day of tribute each January. Then, like many, I put him in the back of my mind.

Natalie Haberman-LaddBut I’m not going to do that anymore.

The year 2023 finds Maine as the whitest state in the country, with 94.4 percent of our total population, according to 2021 census figures, with Portland’s population of white people at 83 percent. Disproportionate numbers like these can make for a fertile breeding ground for white privilege.

The argument from most self-proclaimed “non-prejudicial, non-racist” folks is that Portland is a warm, welcoming bubble, and that we’re doing the best we can. But what matters is that the inalienable human rights of equality our elected officials must strive to uphold. That and the uncomfortable education each of us need to understand what white privilege really means in our own lives. Why? Because subconsciously buying into white privilege as something we can’t help and aren’t responsible for mocks the deepest and most important lessons of Dr. King. It also discredits the lives of those who died in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham.

The 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was bombed by the Ku Klux Klan in 1963, killing four children. Today, it is a historical site and thriving place of worship. (Photo courtesy Candace Caine)
The 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The historical Black church was bombed by the Ku Klux Klan in 1963. Today it is a historical site and thriving place of worship. (Photo courtesy Candace Caine)

In Maine, there have been positive developments. Several Maine municipalities passed anti-racism resolutions in the last couple years, and Portland assembled a racial equity steering committee. Last May, South Portland passed a resolution declaring racism a public health crisis. City councilors there voted and launched a set of reviews to the city laws to “root out systemic racism, uplift indigenous voices and promote education on slavery in school settings.” This isn’t just a pretty arrangement of words, it speaks to housing, health care, education, food security and the whole of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs pyramid.

We also have the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine in Augusta, which offers statewide education and programming. Supporting schools as part of their mission, the HHRC provides age-appropriate lesson plans for educators including an anti-bias tool kit, and fittingly, one called “Civil Rights in America: Yesterday and Today.” 

Some may troll my plea to work toward impactful change as too liberal, too costly for our government, too dismissive of “hard-working, middle-class Americans” and a multitude of other things that keep white privilege a lasting reality. And, because I am dripping in it and therefore not immune, I can sometimes understand where they’re coming from. I wonder: Who’s going to pay for Portland’s asylum seekers and immigrants? Especially as news of U.S.-Mexico border crossings make the news daily, fueled by reports from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection? I don’t know.

What I do know is I care. I care a lot. I also know things have gotten better but not better enough.

So, I’ll keep reading books that make me squirm as I recognize my own entitlement. I’ll keep supporting organizations doing good work. I’ll keep having tearful conversations with my Black penpal friend in Chicago, who I met as part of a woman’s network designed for just that purpose.

I’m nowhere close to being a brave, brilliant orator but please, let’s all do something positive and meaningful to address our own privilege. Identifying it and acting accordingly is a start.

Natalie Haberman Ladd is an award-winning columnist, freelance writer, and Portland restaurant veteran. She loves Boston sports, California cabernets, and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. Reach her at [email protected].

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